Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff's fourth book, is a novel about what it means to be lucky. It's an appropriate subject for an author who has been publishing excellent work since 2008 but is only now receiving the level of recognition she deserves. Debuting at number seven on the New York Times Bestseller list, Fates and Furies has garnered a host of adoring reviews and on Wednesday was named a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Her talent has never been in question. This time she's also caught the right breaks.
The focus of Fates and Furies is a marriage between a seemingly indestructible couple named Lotto and Mathilde. Groff slowly reveals layers of secrecy and serendipity in the relationship. Drama is added by the simple structural decision to break the book into two halves. First comes the husband's story, then that of his wife. There is no alternation between perspectives, no intertwinement of accounts, just this single divorce of voices. The breakage allows established facts to be undermined. It's how Groff allows the light to get in. On the sentence level, this technique is mirrored in a series of smaller fissures: a passage of beautiful, looping description often breaks on an unexpected full stop.
When I sat down with Groff in a bar in Brooklyn there was a warmth and vibrancy to her. A modesty, too. She's fiercely effusive about other authors' work but humble about her own. When she gets angry she does so with a flash of amusement in her eyes that makes you suspect she knows something you don't. We talked about her rejection of "purity" in storytelling, her book as an exploration of American privilege, and why sometimes the most subversive thing you can do in a novel is suggest that married couples have sex.
VICE: Was this book a reaction against the way marriages are often written about in American literary fiction—from a single perspective, which is so often the male perspective?
Lauren Groff: I haven't really said this to anyone before, but yes, I really resist the way marriage has been written about in some of the big American novels of the last few years. I think that marriage is often formed into a very flat, one-sided story in contemporary American fiction, and that often the female side of the relationship is not explored at all, or not in any convincing way. I don't know why, but I have a lot of impatience these days with what I call cause-and-effect realism in writing. Something happens here, which occasions this, which occasions that. I don't think that's what life is like. Life, relationships, marriages—these are containers for a million things that are arranged in a nebulous shape. Life isn't lived from beginning to end in any linear way, a rope full of convenient knots. There are moments that seem to go on forever, and then there are years you can summarize in just one line.
Sometimes I think subversive books are best when they don't announce themselves as subversive. I don't think it's until the second half of this novel that you understand you're reading a feminist book, and a book about privilege, and luck.
"It infuriates me that motherhood in America is supposed to be a form of martyrdom."
All your novels seem to find room to explore the idea of ownership of stories—the question of who gets to hold the microphone.
I have no faith in who gets to own or tell a given story. That instability is built into my process too. I write out all my drafts longhand. I read through the draft and then I put it to one side and don't look at it as I write another. It's a way of retaining a sense of play—on a computer screen, it would look too much like a finished novel. All this happens because I want to strip the idea of perfection away, and I believe in the physicality of writing. Anything that makes it fun. Stopping to do a seven-minute workout. Writing a particular scene standing up instead of sitting down. I had all these pieces of butcher paper up on my walls during the writing of Fates and Furies, with drawings of the Greenwich Village apartment my characters live in, and all these diagrams full of arrows linking messy ideas. I'm always in a state of opposition to whatever solid-seeming version of events people present to me.
You go about life assuming that everyone is lying to you.
No! [Laughs.] It's not like that. I'm so gullible! My problem is that I resist purity—and I don't mean that in the Franzen sense. Nothing seems simple to me now. As I've been moving through my 30s, so many things have been added into my life, yet nothing has been taken out.
What kinds of things have been added?
Well, children. That's one thing. My children are amazing, but you don't become another person when you have children. You just become a person who has to do more. It infuriates me that motherhood in America is supposed to be a form of martyrdom. My husband is the primary parent. I don't see my kids in the morning before they go to school—I'm in my room, working. This is how we agreed it would be before we had kids.
And the truth is, when it comes my turn to bathe and feed my children, I know I often slip into autopilot. I'm thinking of the book I'm working on, my imagined life, which is often more vivid to me than real life at home is. I am not the super-sappy version of motherhood that America seems to want me to be. I'm not going to spend all night making a costume for my kids to take to school the next day. My kids can play for four hours while I read. I'm a loving presence in their lives, but it is not a bad thing that they know that their mother works, and that her work is extremely important to her. This is appalling to many women, I know that. I've said this at readings and women have walked out.
"The American Dream is predicated on ignoring the influence of ingrained privilege."
You say that this is a book about privilege. Lotto is an interesting character in that context. He thinks all his good luck has somehow been earned by him. Was that notion of earned luck—at the center of the so-called American Dream, I guess—something you wanted to explore?
So many people in America today, in this political climate, believe they have what they have because they are inherently good people, that it's due to hard work. There is a complete lack of understanding about how much luck goes into the comfortable lives so many of us in America lead. I live in Florida, where I'm surrounded by people who believe they've earned their luck. It drives me fucking batshit. You can't do anything but remind some of them that, by a stroke of sheer good fortune, they were born into middle-class families in America, a country where we generally ship our wars out, where there's generally free high school education for everybody. To deny that is crazy, yet people deny it all the time.
You and I are both creative people. We write for a living. It's incredibly lucky, and the luck goes all the way back to the fact that our ancestors managed to reproduce and create us, and the mere fact that we have the education and freedom to spend our days writing seems a stroke of shocking luck. Every time I hear someone complaining about their life as a writer, and being ungrateful for all the invisible strings that have been pulled in our favor, it makes me want to scream. Lotto is… well, ungrateful. If he reflects on his own luck, he'd never stop saying thank you. Few of us do. The American Dream is predicated on ignoring the influence of ingrained privilege. That's incredibly offensive to me.
I heard that you originally planned the two halves of Fates and Furies—Lotto's story and Mathilde's—to be published as separate novellas. Is that right? You wanted to physically break up cause and effect?
Yes. I wanted them to be published as two paperback originals and I wanted them to be released six months apart from each other.
Presumably your agent let out a large sigh.
I think what he actually did was say, "Are you crazy?" And I was! You could never read Mathilde's part and then separately read Lotto's. It wouldn't make any sense. It took me a while to see that even though Lotto and Mathilde have radically different stories to tell, they are both telling their story from within a marriage, which is a unit, a community, just as a book is. It's as Frank Lloyd Wright says—I hope I get this right—"Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union." Once I realized the stories belonged in the same book—my friend Laura van den Berg helped me realize that—it allowed mode and the matter to be married.
Lotto has this notion in the book that women are physical creators and men are intellectual creators.
An artist I had a drink with once said that to me. That's where that line came from. I didn't rebut it at the time, or rebutted it only very weakly, because I was so completely appalled by what he'd said. He thought there was a biological imperative that led men to put their aggressive energy into creating great genius works of art, whereas women are built for creating children. And this guy, he really would consider himself a feminist. He'd say, "I love women, I love how gentle they are." That was his version of feminism.
"I love women—they have sex with me!"
Speaking of sex—you write it so well. And I love that, as opposed to a novel like Freedom, where the only halfway decent sex is extramarital, you explore eroticism within a marriage, between two people who know each other so well and are therefore bound up in this long pattern of power shifts and psychological slants.
I just hate contemporary sex scenes that are all bumbly and cute and where everything goes wrong. I mean, that maybe happens in real life, 10 percent of the time, but in fiction it happens almost all of the time, right? It's a process of pandering to the reader—a sympathy move by the writer, whoever he or she is. So many writers are afraid of writing a serious, complex sex scene. Personally, I'd rather write sincerely about sex and risk the Bad Sex Award than write one of those pandering, comical grotesqueries of sex placed there so the reader will like the character and the writer. Also—people who are married do still have sex! With each other! Fiction writers, take note.
Some critics seem to have failed to relate to Lotto or Mathilde or both. Does that bother you? Do you buy into the old idea that likability or relatability has any role at all in fiction?
I don't expect people to love Lotto. I kind of wanted him to be this golden character like Bill Clinton who walks into a room and gives off these sparks of light and everyone just bows to him. And I wanted him to be Floridian, too, and so flawed. He feels like Florida to me. He's sunny and warm but he has this dark heart, he's superficial, and he has no idea how lucky he is.
But Mathilde—I love her. She's incredibly autonomous and self-directed. She might not be nice, but who cares? The function of fiction is to show you people who are not like you. Likability is bullshit. To be honest, I find the whole idea of relatability insulting too. You want to make your character "relatable"? To who, exactly? It isn't the job of a writer to try and find a consensus among readers. Every reader, every character, is different. There's never one story to be told.
Jonathan Lee's new novel, High Dive, will be released by Knopf in March 2016. Follow him on Twitter.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is now out from Riverhead Books.